Saturday, December 13, 2008

Off-Beat Genre: Mini-Comics

Rob concludes his look at unusual genre comics with several short reviews of minicomics. Included are NURSE NURSE #3 by Katie Skelly, SATISFACTORY COMICS #8 by Isaac Cates & Mike Wenthe, THE NATURAL WORLD #1 by Damien Jay, MOTRO #1 by Ulises Farinas, and three comics by Jarrett B. Williams.

Minicomics have the freedom to take genre ideas in some unusual directions. Each of the artists discussed in this article looks at science-fiction, fantasy, heroic epics, and manga-inspired adventure in different ways to different effects.

NURSE NURSE #3, by Katie Skelly. The third issue of Skelly's psychedelic sci-fi series starring a nurse's adventures in outer space was especially enjoyable. The action in this issue centered around the weird goo emitted from a certain kind of butterfly infecting Nurse Gemma's ship, causing a love-induced short circuit. A pair of sharply-designed pirates then infiltrate her ship, one of them a half-human/half-panda. This series is dominated by Skelly's unusual stylistic choices, both in terms of character design and page design. There are all sorts of unusual angles, characters in odd poses and flourishes that dominate whole pages, like Gemma sliding through a tube. Skelly's command over her line and the world she's created grows issue by issue, immersing the reader into a freaky and fabulous environment. Her use of body language, gesture and character interaction carries the story, with just enough background details to impart information without detracting from the real action. My only complaint is that each issue is too short (18 pages); I sense that the story will really cohere once it's collected.

SATISFACTORY COMICS #8, by Isaac Cates & Mike Wenthe. The comics of Cates & Wenthe are best known for two things: the closeness of their collaboration and the self-imposed rules, limitations and formal boundaries they like to place on themselves when they are creating their comics. While the latest issue is no exception, the result is perhaps the most entertaining, organic effort I've seen from them yet. The format, unsurprisingly, is quite clever: each page is presented as a separate postcard, bound by a wrap-around strip of paper. The back of each postcard/page reveals the particular constraints placed upon them (some of them revealed in highly specialized comics jargon) and which of their colleagues suggested the constraints.

The story, "Stepan Crick and the Chart of the Possible", is an extremely clever fantasy story about a young wizard's apprentice sent to procure a map from a particular mapmaker. The apprentice winds up having all sorts of unexpected adventures against a set of opponents he winds up feeling some sympathy for. While Cates & Wenthe manage to tell a dense, satisfying story in just ten pages, they leave the ending quite open for further adventures. Much like Lewis Trondheim & Joann Sfar's DUNGEON, I found myself both amused by certain formal tricks on the page and the slight tweaking of the genre, but also genuinely wrapped up in the story itself. As for those constraints, they ranged from style mimicking of Steve Ditko or Peter Bagge to drawing a page without a panel grid. My favorite, where references to Marcel Duchamp were required, was a stunning action sequence done in the style of Duchamp's famous "Nude Descending A Staircase" painting. The comic was done in full color, which greatly flattered the pencils and made each page pop. Hopefully we'll be seeing more of these characters from this art duo.

THE NATURAL WORLD #1, by Damien Jay. Jay is one of the most underrated artists in comics. His minis are consistently beautiful and entertaining art objects. Jay's character design is clever and expressive, and this comic is no exception. This purports to be the first issue of a series, and it's set in some generic medieval village where a pious village elder has hired a crew to completely remove a huge and supposedly evil thicket inhabited by a witch. Meanwhile, the elder's mentally deficient brother is out hunting mushrooms when he is startled by something and runs to tell his brother, who happens to be philandering with a local woman. The issue ends with an image that indicates things aren't quite what they seem.

Jay is quite leisurely in parceling out plot points in this issue, concentrating on character. He has a marvelous looseness to his line reminiscent of Jules Feiffer in this issue. The characters are all simple, sharp angles punctuated by a line here or there to indicate motion or emotion. There's a flow to this comic that made it a breezy read even as it was mostly just characters talking to each other. That's a tribute to Jay's skill in depicting expression and gesture, even with fairly simplified, iconic character designs. Like many of the other minis reviewed in this article, I only wish another issue would arrive shortly.

MOTRO #1, by Ulises Farinas. MK Reed recommended this comic to me, and it's a pretty delightful mix of Conan-style heroic fantasy and psychedelia. MOTRO can be found at the website, but Farinas gives the reader their money's worth with the intricate design of this comic. The cut-out cover, the string binding it and the clever use of hidden color immediately drew my eye. This issue discusses the fate of a boy deemed to be Motro, the warrior who would end winter. We see him go through a variety of trials that turns into an encounter with a Yellow Submarine-inspired character named the Master of Fate.

Farinas merges bigfoot character design, a very thin line, a touch of psychedelia with a sharp use of black and white contrasts. The result is a comic that is too weird to take at face value, yet tells an entirely coherent, straightforward story. It's by far the most eccentric of the comics reviewed in this article, moreso even than Skelly's comics. His aesthetic is certainly in the "take-it-or-leave-it" realm occupied by folks like Brian Chippendale and Gary Panter (though in a very different way), and for some a little might go a long way. Overall, I found this comic charming and funny, enjoying it more with each subsequent reading.

SUPER PRO K.O.!, ACTION FRIENDS, and EBALL & CHADWICK by Jarrett B. Williams. These are all very short (8-10 pages) minicomics that show off Williams' skill in character design and interaction. SUPER PRO K.O.! introduces us to a mixed martial arts fighter's apprentice with a lot of potential; ACTION FRIENDS is about a group of animal commandos who rain death on a group of developers; and EBALL & CHADWICK is a wordless tale of two creatures in a forest. Williams' style reminds me a bit of Brandon Graham, mixing manga and graffiti stylizations into pages filled with unusual composition and design choices. Williams loves using weird angles, unusual grid construction and going big and loud on his pages. The weakest of the three comics was ACTION FRIENDS, written by a different person; the gags here were all sort of obvious. The strongest was the very strange EBALL & CHADWICK, a short story following the title characters (a little walking puff of flame and a one-eyed horned creature) on a journey with a group of anthropomorphic, singing leaves. The slickness of Williams' line was a perfect match for the simplicity of his character design. It's difficult to say much more given the shortness of these comics, but he certainly has a lot of potential as a storyteller and illustrator.

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